Here’s the continuation of last week’s cliffhanger! For the previous chapters, click here. Otherwise, enjoy!
Soft sheets met my skin as I came to. My mouth felt as dry as the Atacama Desert; my body heavier than a lead weight. The memory of Kit begging me to hold on sounded in my mind, reminding me that something had gone terribly wrong. Everything on me felt like it was burning.
With a whine, I tried to speak. Feeling an odd sensation on my mouth and nose, I opened my eyes a crack. There was an oxygen mask hissing air into my nose; pain in my wrists. Looking down, I saw an IV digging into my skin. While I was in my bed, there were all kinds of medical equipment surrounding me.
Looking further, I discovered that I was far from alone. Mortimer sat in one corner, his eyes darker than I’d ever seen them. Fury emanated from every feature, along with a grim determination that chilled me.
“What happened?” I croaked, discovering my throat was terribly sore. Spotting a strange wand on the table at the foot of my bed, I realized that the soreness had likely come from a tube being rammed down my throat to pump my stomach. Either that or to keep air in my lungs.
“Tiny got the bright idea to give you your mother’s pills,” he muttered, his voice so deep in his chest that it sounded more like a wolf’s growl. His eyes flashed with barely restrained wrath. “Except your mother lied when she told Tiny they were sedatives…”
Dread settled into my gut, realizing that I hadn’t merely experienced a bad reaction. I’d unwittingly overdosed on some kind of drug. “What were they?”
“Don’t know yet,” he muttered, standing to come closer. “Some kind of designer drug, though. You’re lucky you spat them out when you did or you’d be…”
He trailed off, gritting his teeth. I extended a weak hand to him and he took it, sitting on the edge of the bed next to me. “That guy, the one you helped, kept you breathing until the paramedics got here.”
Kit had saved my life? A small, unbidden smile came to my lips as I was flooded with gratitude. Then a new anxiety came to me. “They didn’t hurt him for being down here, did they?”
“Considering he’s the hero, they only locked him in his room,” Mortimer assured me as I tried to sit up, brushing my hair back soothingly. “While they tried to originally pin the blame on him, once the pills were confiscated from Tiny…”
He stopped talking as a man in a white coat, whom I could only assume was a doctor, strode in with a tablet, the older man smiling with relief. “Ah, Miss Anna, you’re awake.”
“Tiny gave me… She said it was a sedative,” I said with a wavering voice, worried that Kit would be punished for her transgression.
The doctor nodded, though his eyes narrowed in on me with a different kind of scrutiny. “Yes, but my concern is you’re severely underweight. It’s hindering your body’s recovery.”
Before I could speak, Mortimer rumbled, “She’s not anorexic and will eat like a horse… if it’s allowed. But she does get hypoglycemic.”
Dismay flooded the doctor’s expression. “That should’ve been reported to her GP. Symptoms of her diabetes-”
That got my attention. “Diabetes?”
“That must be a mistake,” Mortimer asserted, giving the doctor a curious look.
“That’s odd. All her medical records indicate she has it,” the doctor muttered, looking at the results on his tablet. He looked up at me with sympathy, worry clouding his eyes. “Let me inquire of her usual GP. In the meantime, she needs some immediate calories.”
“Drawer,” I said quietly, gesturing at the night table next to me.
Mortimer obligingly opened the drawer, so I pointed at the pillowcase hidden within. He handed it to me as I pulled the oxygen mask down and immediately dug in, especially appreciative of the supplies Kit had provided me earlier.
Having forgotten about the Danish until now, I was more than happy to tear a hunk out of it with my teeth. While it hurt my throat, the gooiness of it soothed the raw burn.
The doctor didn’t comment on the odd way I’d hidden my food, though he did quip, “I’ll be back in a moment, hopefully with answers.”
As he headed out, I looked into Mortimer’s watchful eyes. I could read everything in them. “How bad do I look?”
“Frail,” he responded bluntly, radiating tension. “But –“
The evening didn’t seem to be heading in any less an exciting direction as Mortimer jumped up to defend me; his Glock aimed at the balcony door as it opened from the outside in. “What the hell-?!”
“It’s okay,” I murmured to Mortimer, noting he refused to stand down despite the recognition between the two parties.
“You won’t shoot me,” Kit said confidently, striding in with his eyes directly focused on me and unbothered in the slightest by Mortimer’s reaction. They softened with relief as he saw me eating and he came to sit on the very edge of the bed. “You all right, querida? You had us scared but good. You were poisoned, yes? Hard to hear from upstairs…”
Mortimer looked between the two of us, clearly displeased by the arrival and lowered his weapon. I held up my hand with the IV pumping fluids into my veins. “Yes, though by accident. It wasn’t intentional on Tiny’s part.”
His brow furrowed, deepening into scrutiny as if I were lying. “Oh? Then why’d they take her out back and give her the firing squad?”
Horror gripped at my heart. “No…”
“I’m guessing that Elena denied taking any drugs to wash her hands of the whole thing,” Mortimer muttered, seeing me upset. While Tiny was an absolute monster, I didn’t believe she deserved to die by any means. Especially not for my mother’s lies.
One of Kit’s eyebrows went up. “So they just shoot her? No trial?”
“Not in this end of the regime,” Mortimer said without any hesitation, likely also aiming it as a caution to Kit of what could occur.
As his name was called from the doorway by one of his men, he shot us a warning look. “I’ll be back.”
Kit didn’t seem to notice the warning aimed his way as Mortimer strode out. Noting his eyes lingering on me with grim intensity, I looked down and popped another piece of Danish in my mouth. “Please don’t look at me like that.”
“Like I’m pathetic.“
“You’re not,” he insisted firmly with a heavy sigh, trying to catch my eyes as I studiously avoided his. “I’m just sorry. I had no idea this was how you lived. You’re essentially an actress, one forced to smile.“
“One who doesn’t get paid damn good enough,” I muttered, ripping into a second Danish while I could. “It never used to be like this. When I was growing up, they never bothered with me except at the holidays.”
Absentmindedly toying with the locket around my neck, I stared at the opposite wall. Times had been so much better then, living with my aunt. She’d moved to the area adjacent to the school so I could live with her after school hours were over. Other than during the holidays, my father and Elena never brought me home.
Every good childhood memory – scratch that – every good memory in my life had been with Lola. Then in an instant, she was torn away from me. The day after I turned eighteen, she was murdered. And I’d been brought here permanently, given the duty of public appearances as an adult.
With her death, something in me had died. It’d remained stone cold ever since, my soul more listless with every passing day. Even as the years had passed, I never fully recovered.
“I’ll bet you have a nice family with your tia and Alvin,” I murmured, trying to divert attention from me and also a tad envious. “Mine was like that, too, once upon a time…”
Before Kit could reply, my father strode in. Much like his usual, he didn’t appear the slightest bit ruffled by what’d happened to me. “Darling, are you all right? We caught that horrible woman red handed. The whole situation has been taken care of.”
Every word sounded scripted and fake. Noting that he hadn’t paused to hear if I was indeed all right, I forced myself to sit up. “The doctor said I may have diabetes –“
“Diabetes? That’s an underprivileged person’s ailment,” he said over me, seeming appalled by the idea. I was likewise sickened, not believing my ears with this one. Then he spotted Kit, doing a doubletake. “How did you get down here?”
Sparing Kit from answering (other than by shooting my father a look of absolute loathing), I was relieved to see the doctor stepping in. The man soured when he saw who was present. “Ah, there you are. It’s in her records that your daughter was previously diagnosed with type two diabetes.“
Something told me that the doctor had already questioned my father and likewise gotten the ‘underprivileged’ quip considering his loftily irritated, authoritative tone. Father just shrugged.
“Since childhood,” the doctor said with further frustration at his continued denial. He ignored him entirely as he came to me, the kindly older gentleman adding, “You are of the small percentage of patients whose bodies produce enough insulin to get by, but only if your diet and lifestyle don’t overwhelm it. In your medical files, it said that so long as you were monitored and eating correctly, medication was not needed-“
“This must be a mistake,” Father said arrogantly.
“Her diet must include the proper nutrients or it will kill her!!” the doctor exclaimed with open exasperation, rounding on him.
“Can’t she just take injections?” he asked in return.
Rather than argue, the doctor appealed to me with a far gentler tone. “Would you prefer to discuss your medical needs confidentially?”
Without Father being present was the unvoiced intonation. The fellow eyed me, almost looking like he’d personally enjoy throwing my father out if I requested it. I shook my head, knowing that it wouldn’t matter. Father would immediately make his own diagnosis once the doctor was gone.
“My recommendation is for an in-house nutritionist,” he said with resignation, checking my IV. “To help return your weight back to the ideal BMI without upsetting your insulin levels.”
“Her BMI has already been calculated by our fitness professional,” Father said obnoxiously, not giving in.
“We’ll get a second opinion on all this…”
As the doctor turned on him, finally losing his temper over the treatment I was receiving, I just shrank into the bed. Now I had new worries to deal with besides starvation. If I didn’t eat, I could be at risk in another way. My fainting spell with Alvin would’ve ended a lot worse if he hadn’t intervened with the juice.
Likewise having reached the end of his tolerance, Kit came up to my side. He fluffed my pillow and blocked them from my view by sitting next to me, putting his back to them. He snatched a bottle of water from the nightstand, handing it to me. “Drink. Next he’ll be rationing your water intake, too…”
His tone dripped with venomous hatred toward my father, focusing in on me with worry and prodding my hand as I failed to take it. I shook my head, preoccupied. “You need to get out of here, Kit.”
“Mmm? Yes, they’ll probably attempt to kick me out in a minute.“
“No, I meant about-“
I cut off with a squeak as he pulled the oxygen mask over my mouth and nose. He chuckled deep in his chest without humor, imitating what I’d done to him back at the first Tourney event with the oxygen. “So we’re back to trying to get rid of me, eh?”
“She was after you, Kit,” I said without softening the blow, pulling the mask back down so he could hear me. “The spoons were Elena’s idea.”
His eyebrows went up again as he took my hand, far from bothered. “Because I don’t know fancy-shmancy etiquette, eh? I appreciate you trying to defend me again, but this time it put you in the crosshairs. I can take care of myself.” He looked at my hand, comparing the size of it to his. “You have tiny hands.”
For the first time, I wondered just what Kit had faced before he came here. No matter the situation, he didn’t show any fear and refused to back down when confronted with danger. “Whatever your reasons, they’re not worth it,” I said, refusing to be dissuaded. “Run.”
“And leave you to be starved?” he said without one ounce of teasing, still looking at my fingers. “What kind of man would I be then?”
The statement was especially poignant as my father came stomping over to my bedside, a complete contrast to Kit’s concern.
“Mr. Arenciana, go to your room,” he ordered without feeling, arms crossed with defiance despite having had the kind doctor thrown out. “I need to speak to my daughter.”
Kit did as asked, never taking his eyes off me. He winked, giving my hand a squeeze. “Feel better, chica.”
As he walked out, I didn’t miss the downright murderous look he shot at my father. The look in his eyes promised violent retribution, though I couldn’t fathom how he’d get it . He was hidden from my view with the closing of the door.
“Darling, I’m sure this is just a misdiagnosis,” Father said, reclaiming my attention as he patted my head like he had when I was six.
“Then how did Auntie Lola know?” I murmured, remembering how she’d bring me to the doctor regularly to have my blood checked. Even more suspicious, she had diabetes herself. She’d have recognized the signs. I stared him directly in the eyes. “You were the one who always dealt with my childhood care. Why hide it from me?”
He sighed heavily as if burdened by the accusation. Why he would lie I couldn’t fathom, though it seemed he had. His cell phone rang, saving him from having to answer. “You need to put the past behind you, Anna. I have to take this.“
“It’s Aiyla!” I thundered, my throat protesting with pain as I yelled. “You named me so deal with it! We’re not in public!”
But he was already gone with the closing of the door.
Unable to resist the urge, I threw the thing closest to me at the door. The victim was the water bottle in hand, landing with a crack and the cap popping off to spill water all over the floor.
Watching as the liquid pooled out, I realized it echoed my current state. If I kept going like this, I would crack. This incident snapped all the restraints in my mind about just where my safety stood. If I did nothing, I would fall by their hands by my own passivity. Fight it, and I knew not where I would wind up, though at least I could say I wasn’t complicit in my death.
If anything, I owed my dear aunt that much. She’d given so much to stand by me. Allowing myself to continue the downward spiral would be an insult to her memory.
This had to end. Enough was enough.
The phone beside me rang, prompting me to shut the damn thing up. Unfortunately for me, the touch screen answered instead of shutting it off. “What?!”
“If you’re able to answer with such vigor, I suppose it’s a good sign,” Ryan’s amused voice purred back, making me grumble in response. “My mother got a call from Elena, looking for sympathy because apparently you’ve ‘contracted’ diabetes. I mean, really? Contracted?”
“Guess she’s not upset over my being poisoned then,” I groused, flopping back on the pillows. The IV was beeping something awful, frustrating me further.
Dead silence reigned for a few seconds. “Poisoned?” he repeated in an entirely different tone, the humor fading. “I’ll be there in minutes.”
He hung up, leaving me to shake my head. But as Mortimer came in, I rolled my eyes. “Haynesworth is coming in hot.”
“Swell,” he grunted, looking like he was ready to beat the crap out of someone. His nostrils flared, looking at me and apparently having overheard everything, including the diagnosis. “This all counts as abuse and I can’t do one damn thing about it. You’ve gotten so used to the ill treatment that you just take it.”
I didn’t dare tell him that my ‘not taking it’ earlier was what prompted Tiny to drug me. He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I’m assigning a permanent security detail to you – whether you like it or not – to report directly back to me.”
Considering I’d refused a permanent bodyguard before, all I could do was scowl. He noticed. “Sorry, hun. I know you can defend yourself against attack. But you need a different kind of defense now.”
I nodded slowly, knowing he was right. “Thank you, Mort.”
His eyes clouded over, looking as if he had so much more to say. But we both knew that there were infinite ears to hear everything. Everyone in this building was always eager to improve their position with the elite and usually at someone else’s expense.
It didn’t stop him, however, from stooping down and giving me a rare hug. I buried my head in his neck, embracing him in return. “We’ll figure something out,” he promised me gruffly, sounding suspiciously choked up. He shuddered. “Came close to losing you today.”
“You know better,” I muttered, trying to cheer him up as I drew back a little. “I’m like a jackass. Too stubborn to die.”
He smiled at me, eyes glinting with unshed tears. “Well, at least we’ve got that much in common.” I laughed weakly and he sighed. “Just never forget you’re the daughter I never had. This isn’t the end of this. Not by a long shot. There will be a reckoning.”
Deeply touched, I didn’t have time to question him as there was a soft knock. Seeing Haynesworth in the doorway watching the two of us, I wondered just how much he’d heard. And while he was an ally, I didn’t trust him all the same.
Mortimer mussed my hair up affectionately before nodding in his direction. “I’ll be out on the balcony, getting some air if you need me.”
Meaning there was no way in hell he was leaving me alone tonight, but he’d give us a little privacy. Haynesworth nodded as he placed two large paper bags on the bed. His eyes traveled over me minus his signature smirk, surprisingly concerned as Mortimer stepped out. It only deepened as he read the label on the IV bag on the pole next to me.
“These are the drugs EMTs give people when they’ve overdosed,” he murmured, looking me over with suspicion.
I shot him a frank look. “If I wanted to die, don’t you think I’d have been more creative with the method? Let alone succeeded?”
His lips twitched in response, lifting up the clove of garlic from the edge of the pillowcase with the candies in it. “A talisman to ward Elena off perhaps?”
Vampirism? Now that would explain a few things. I snatched it from him, tucking it away. “An inside joke from a friend.”
Ryan was last person I needed to know of Kit’s interference. He inclined his head, stepping over to pull out the containers of takeout. My mouth watered at the smell. His smirk returned, placing a container in front of me. “From your resident hero perhaps? You seemed to have freely doled your attention out to him.”
It didn’t surprise me that there was a jealous angle in there somewhere. Despite our consistent game of baiting each other, I didn’t doubt that Ryan resented the idea of me giving my attention to someone else. “I find Kit’s blatant honesty refreshing.”
“So you don’t want him?”
The question was too casual. I accepted a fork as he offered it to me. “I don’t allow myself to think in that avenue of thought.”
“Yes, you keep your heart nicely tucked away where no one can get to it,” he replied with a glint in his eye, sitting down to eat before offering me a breadstick.
I accepted and took a bite. “Why indulge what isn’t possible? My life has been chosen for me, as will be my future husband.” He nodded as if disappointed by my answer. “Why are you really here? The extent of our relationship doesn’t usually include house calls.”
“Perhaps I decided on a traditionalist approach,” he said, twirling his fork around his pasta. “Romance as opposed to pure sex.”
“Is this your way of hinting that you’ve been trying to get my attention previously and failed?” I asked wryly, digging into my food. As he shrugged, I snickered, “I know better. I’m only a game you play whenever you bore of your expensive toys and pinup girlfriends.”
“No games. You’re a forever kind of girl, Anna, not someone I would have a fling with,” he said with an uncomfortable edge.
“And you want ‘forever’ now?” I asked skeptically.
“Perhaps. We both share a common desire for justice. As wife of the head of Dejado Atrás’ police, you’d get it,” he said, picking a stray bay leaf out of his lasagna.
Now he was hinting at marriage? “You’ve been promoted?”
“They’re grooming me for the position. My family has been prodding me to settle down, but I’ve no interest in letting them choose my spouse,” he admitted, seeing my dubious expression.
Both my eyebrows were rising. “So you’re after a marriage of convenience with me? So much for romance.”
He laughed lightly. “You’d hardly be a convenience, Anna. Your true nature is to be opinionated, despite your being beaten into submission.” He leaned in, preparing to dangle whatever he thought the clinching argument was. “With me, you’d be out of your mother’s reach. I don’t micromanage diets or clothes. In fact, I prefer no clothes at all.”
I looked at the ceiling. “So that’s why you brought me all the food: a bribe.”
“And to see if you were all right.”
“I know you, Ryan. This isn’t like you,” I said, not buying it. I crossed my arms. “How long have you been planning this?”
“Long enough to have this for you.”
As he pulled out a small jewelry box and placed it on my palm, I gingerly opened the lid. Inside sat a sparkling engagement ring, one that must’ve cost him quite the pretty penny.
“I have few enough choices, Anna. I want my wife to be one of them,” he admitted, scratching his head. “I enjoy my time with you and have toyed with the idea for a while. When I heard what your family has done to you… Well, I think this could be the solution for us both.”
“You do know that there is no way for me to answer this proposal, right?” I said gently, extending it back to him.
He put his palm up, not accepting it back. “They can’t stop me from popping the question on live TV. They’d be forced to go along with it. You have full choice here.”
There wasn’t one ounce of pleasure in me at this idea. This move would be strategic at best, no love between the two of us. “Emotions have no place in this decision, do they?”
“Weren’t you the one upset by men plying you with false declarations of love?” he said with a hint of irony. I closed my eyes. “I think we both would be considerably happier with each other than with anyone else. Your mother is favoring my elder brother for your hand and I don’t want to see a drunk, often abusive man as your keeper. With me, you’d have your life back. And I…”
He trailed off, seeming to see something in his mind that deeply disturbed him. “Well, I’d get more prestige, being married to the presidente’s daughter, not that I’d need it.”
I didn’t stop him as he reached to touch my cheek, looking into my eyes. “You really are beautiful, you know. Not many women can pull off the withered look, complete with an IV pole and still keep my attention.”
Smiling despite myself, I looked down. “I think you should eat your dinner before it gets cold, Ryan.”
He nodded, withdrawing at my subtle cue and offering me another breadstick. “But you’ll think about it?”
I inclined my head, wondering if there was even really much choice in the matter. At the current moment, I didn’t see another way out. But I still hated being backed into a corner. “I will.”
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well. But as morning rolled around and I awoke, I was more than amused to hear singing. Very bad singing, in fact. As I rolled over, I cringed at the sound. Since it was coming from the floor above, my guess was Kit was taking a shower.
Considering my IV had been taken out the night before, I was free to head over to the balcony door. While my body felt more tired than normal, I felt two hundred percent better than twelve hours ago.
Stepping out into the sun, I smiled as I discovered another pillowcase had been thrown down, along with a tulip.
A tulip that looked suspiciously like one that I’d spotted the gardeners planting a week ago on the grounds. Inside the pillowcase was a small box of granola bars and three apples, along with a note.
Contraband goods. I have leftovers from last night since you had ‘company’.
“You look better.”
Looking up, I discovered him peering down as he toweled dry. Noting that he was once again sauntering around in the buff as he shook out his wet hair, I said, “Your singing woke me.”
He shrugged, leaning over the side to see me better. “Yes, I’m not pop star material. But it beats an alarm clock.”
Settling in and biting into an apple, I allowed myself to enjoy his company. “How do you keep getting in and out to get the food? Not that I’ll complain, but you can’t be flying over rooftops. What’s your secret?”
A very smug expression came to his face, almost like he was immensely enjoying an inside joke. “Security only patrols where they think someone will get in. They don’t care about someone getting out so that takes care of half the problem.”
Not altogether convinced, I bit another hunk out of the apple. He chuckled, watching me with interest. “I came down to see you again after ‘Prince Charming’ left, but you’d already dozed off. He really thinks his shit don’t stink, si? Coming while you were weak to spin his ideas to you. Tcha! Despicable.”
That was one of my first deductions as well, though his disgust was apparent. “So you heard…”
“He’s banking on all of us contestants dying and waltzing off with the prize himself,” Kit seethed, apparently no love lost between him and Ryan. His hands clenched over the railing before forcing his voice into a more amiable tone. “I heard you two last night. You haven’t allowed yourself to entertain ideas of me? I’m either impressed by your ability to lie to yourself or depressed by it.” He gestured at himself with humor. “You can’t be immune to all this.”
“I don’t fantasize about dead men,” I parried back, taking another bite and enjoying the view of all he entailed while I could.
A wicked grin came to his face as he leaned over even further. “Oh, but I’m alive now, chica. And willing to prove it.”
An unwelcome thrill ran down my spine as he stared down at me with a cat-like gaze, his eyes alight with mischievous intentions. As I involuntarily gulped, he smiled even wider. “Dead men don’t sing, right? You like me. You just don’t want to admit it.”
I rolled my eyes, knowing better than to go for the bait. Kit only chuckled. “Did I hit a nerve? I’d like to hit every nerve you have in a way that wouldn’t leave you complaining…”
Now he was really going for it. I tossed the core of the apple up at him and he dodged it with a laugh. “Speaking of nerve…”
“Chica, I’m not blind. I can see you eyeing me from down there,” he said with open satisfaction, still not moving to get dressed. As I crossed my arms, he added, “Care for me to come down? I’m not nearly as shy as you are and my constitution could do with a boost…”
As I headed inside and knowing better than to respond to his reference to what the shrink had said yesterday, his laughter followed me. I growled under my breath, knowing that this was going to become more of a problem now that he knew Haynesworth was after me. “Pain in the ass.”
A very sexy pain in the ass, but still.
As I walked in, I saw a note on my door. It informed me that I had an afternoon shopping appointment with Elena and her friends.
Goodie for me.
Feeling particularly rebellious and realizing that I wouldn’t win no matter what I did, I made a decision. One that I knew would bite me in the butt, but I no longer cared. Without a personal assistant to rat me out for the first time in a number of years, there would be no one to police me before I went in public. There was great opportunity.
Twenty minutes later, the stretch limo was waiting. Getting inside, I was startled to find I wasn’t alone. A rather burly man in a black jacket with a dark set of shades looked up from his phone as I got in.
“Hello, miss. I’m your new security detail. Mortimer sent me,” he rumbled, giving me a once over as I warily strapped myself in.
That wasn’t what had me confused. Seeing his face as he pulled his glasses off, recognition tickled my brain. “Don’t I know you?”
With his sun-bleached hair and tanned skin, I knew I’d seen him somewhere. To my interest, a bright flush colored his cheeks. “Yes, I’m Mortimer’s nephew.“
“Teagan,” I finished with easy remembrance, though baffled by this turnaround. Last time I’d seen him, he’d been three times smaller around the shoulders. That and his voice had gotten rougher. “You shadowed him while you were training. And spilled lemonade on Elena.”
He shifted uncomfortably, looking anywhere but directly at me. “Yes. My apologies.”
I snorted amusedly, now knowing why Mortimer had sent him.
“Don’t apologize. That was the highlight of my year.”
I’d met him a few times during my teens, so I had no obligation to hide my personality in front of him. We’d even sparred a few times with Mortimer coaching us. Joining the armed forces since then certainly agreed with him. Last time I saw him, he’d been a nervous, ungainly mess. Now I was sure that he had no trouble landing women.
He nodded, slate grey eyes watching me with unerring accuracy. “I’m to accompany you daily and procure you ‘sufficient’ meals when they’re not provided. Anything else I should know?”
I scowled. “I don’t like being babysat, Teagan.”
“Considering you took great joy in socking me in the jaw, I know you can defend yourself. I’m just back up,” he said with a dry edge, mouth set in a firm line. “And I go by Monster now.” As I shot him an inquisitive look, he muttered, “You don’t want to know why.”
I very much doubted that, especially with his succinctly contrite attitude. If anything, it was acutely uncomfortable the way he studied me, rigidly sitting in his seat. Getting the distinct feeling that he’d noticed I’d forgone makeup entirely, as well as worn low cut jeans and a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones across the bust, I smirked. The shirt exposed my arms and revealed my tan skin: the one thing that those in charge did their best to hide.
Knowing there would be trouble, I couldn’t hide my glee. The best part was that Elena would be amongst her friends. She couldn’t complain about my appearance, lest she admit she didn’t have full control over me. And by the time I got into the store, all the paparazzi would have gotten photos. She wouldn’t be able to undo what I’d done.
If Teagan had any opinion on the matter, he kept it to himself as we rode the rest of the way in silence.
Once out of the car in the fashion district, he followed three feet behind me. But good Lord was he tall compared to when we’d last met. What worried me was the obviously hindering limp he walked with. It was new. All he did was shoot me a cold look as he caught me staring at his foot over my shoulder. Apparently it wasn’t my business what’d happened.
While I knew paparazzi cameras were likely catching me from every street corner, I gave them the satisfaction of waving at them. Made damn sure that they caught my appearance and would be buzzing about it. By the time it made it back to those in charge, their complaints would be too late.
Coming up on my mother’s group of friends, however, I was less than pleased as all eyes turned to me. They blinked like a bunch of wide-eyed owls. Elena stared with equal surprise, not expecting my different appearance.
The only appreciative face in the crowd was Haynesworth. Apparently having tagged along with his mother (and likely to suck up to mine to make her amenable with the idea of us marrying), his eyes raked down my frame with interest. I hadn’t expected him to be here, nor to see him in full dress uniform and armed. What was up with that?
His mother stared at me over her cat eye glasses. “Anna, dear? Did you get a tan?“
“My God, Anna, you look radiant,” Ryan said with exaggerated volume over his mother’s question. He kissed my hand, his eyes meeting mine alluringly. “Like the Fountain of Youth. No wonder Mother’s jealous.”
Gardenia Haynesworth sniffed with indignance at his quip, though not daring to rebuke her baby boy. Her eyes flashed in my direction. “Hardly. Shall we?”
Teagan nodded, adjusting his earpiece. “The store is all clear.”
Elena just stared, eyes squinted with aggravation at me as we headed in. Considering her friends were clearly envious over my appearance, she couldn’t protest like she sorely wanted to.
Much to my amusement, her eyes then traveled over Teagan instead. Apparently she’d forgotten about their prior mishap, especially as her eyes fell to his nether end.
Once inside the store, I did my best to disappear. Usually the women were terrible gossips so I made myself scarce. Teagan shadowed me from a polite distance, never taking his eyes off me. But as I picked up a hanger, I felt another presence sidle up behind me.
“I want to see you in that,” Ryan hissed in my ear, having managed to extricate himself from his mother. Following his gaze, I then spotted a floor length evening dress off to the side.
“Most men would,” I quipped, his breath tickling my neck. The fire engine red, formfitting gown with slits up both legs and a dropped neckline was obscenely suggestive.
He pressed a kiss to my neck. “Have you thought about my offer?”
“Not one way or the other,” I teased, slipping past him.
He caught me by the waist. “Ah, so I’ve yet to tempt you? What do I have to do?” he hissed in my ear, his teeth grazing the lobe. I shivered as he murmured, “Is my mother watching? I can feel her glare from here.”
Seeing Gardenia staring at me with disapproval, I just gulped. That was one thing I hadn’t factored in. If I played into this game, she’d be my potential mother-in-law. “Yes.”
I felt his lips pull into a smirk at my ear. “Wear the dress to dinner with me. I’m going to ask for your size…”
As he breezed past me, his hand lingering over my back, I just sighed. Now he was dressing me?
Catching Teagan’s eye, I was surprised to see them fixed on Haynsworth’s back as he left me. Seeing that I’d caught him glaring, he shot me a forced smile. Then I discovered why. “I see he’s staking claim…”
Turning to Elena as she prowled up behind me, I saw another martini in her hand. She jerked her head in a short nod. “Look, about yesterday…”
Was there remorse about nearly killing me with her lies? I looked away, not willing to rehash the obvious. “You need to stop with the drugs,” I murmured. “For your sake.”
“It should simply be noted that I’m not the one who decided on your diet,” she said crisply, taking a sip of her drink while she eyed my exposed skin. “I don’t care what you weigh or eat.”
Or if I lived apparently. She snorted, taking a sip. “We’re under pressure, Anna. We have our parts to play or else… The rebellion has strained everything on us, including your father’s position …”
Was that a thinly veiled warning? Before I could question her, she’d moved off and back to her friends. But a rebellion? This was news to me. Just what was going on out in the city? I wasn’t allowed access to television or internet, so I was in the dark.
Now I definitely had reason to go to dinner with Haynesworth; if only to interrogate him. As he sidled up to me, he murmured huskily, “It’s waiting for you, plus a few accoutrements to go with it…”
Deciding to oblige only to sate my own curiosity, I went to the dressing room. Less than thrilled to discover that he’d selected undergarments and that he’d already paid for them, I just changed.
Stepping out to go to the floor length mirror at the end of the dressing rooms, I frowned. While the gown was undeniably sexy, it made me feel like a hunk of meat.
Not paying much attention as a dressing room attendant strolled up behind me, I almost jumped as she asked, “Don’t like it?”
“Feel like a whore,” I muttered, turning and groaning at the back view. Mesh plunged right down to right over the small of my back. It seemed that Haynesworth wasn’t just dressing me, but also setting me up to go home with him at the end of the evening.
The woman clucked, leaning against the wall to watch me. “And how does that differ from your usual role, Aiyla? The Hacienda has made you into theirs…”
It was if a cold dose of water trickled down the back of my spine as she used my real name. The one unknown to anyone outside the manor’s walls.
Turning to face her, she didn’t move, though her eyes focused on me with an intensity that left me immobile. Now looking directly at her, I realized my first impression had been wrong. She didn’t work here. Her clothes didn’t quite fit with the employee code and the nametag must’ve been stolen. And I was cornered between her and the exit, seeing there was a blade sheathed at her hip.
The question was how she’d gotten past Teagan with him on guard in front of the dressing rooms. I cursed internally, realizing that my gun was in the stall I’d just vacated, leaving me defenseless.
“You got a reason for insulting me or is this just your way of trying to make friends?” I said, keeping my stance prepared in case she attacked. “You have a name?”
All she did was chuckle, cynically amused as she ignored the question. “The Lynx decided we ought to speak,” she murmured, crossing her legs as she remained against the wall. “We can see you’re not one of the traditional Elites…”
The Lynx? Last I checked, he personally reviled me. On the alert with her impromptu appearance, I merely asked, “And you’re who?”
“A friend of his,” she purred, amber eyes visible beneath the bangs of what I was sure was a black wig. “You see, you’re in a very special position. One that could help us. We need allies.”
I didn’t doubt that considering anyone who opposed the Elite’s regime was hunted mercilessly and executed. “For what?”
“The resistance,” she stated as if it were a no brainer. “We fight back against the corruption and tyranny. The Forge is no better than the Hacienda. The Lynx thinks you’re the one to help our cause. You’re obviously unhappy acting as a puppet for them to manipulate. With us you could become a voice to stop the endless violence. The police are of no help. Crime is rampant.”
That I knew, despite Ryan’s continued denial of there being a crime problem in the city. Still, I crossed my arms. “I think you have the wrong woman, lady. I have no standing to help you with.”
A fierce smile took over her features. “That’s what you think. But we’re willing to meet your price.”
Now I had a price? “That being?”
“We can get you out of the Hacienda… if you join us,” she said, dangling that lure in front of me. “We’ll be waiting when you’re ready.”
That had a very interesting spin to it. The question was how they knew I was dissatisfied with my current life. Nobody inside Elite’s circles would dare let on. There had to be a spy in the ordinance, parroting back information to those in the resistance, whomever they might be.
“And if I’m never ready?” I asked cautiously.
“Then you’ll get what’s coming to you…”
As she backed away and headed into one of the dressing room stalls, I officially lost my temper. Following her to give her a piece of my mind and peering in the stall, the hairs on the back of my neck rose higher. It was deserted. Empty as if she’d never been there in the first place.
All but fleeing from the area since I knew I was exposed, I nearly crashed into Teagan and Haynesworth. They were nose to nose in the entranceway, Teagan snarling, “She’s not a toy to play with. Back off!”
“And if I don’t?!” Haynesworth sneered, jabbing him in the chest.
“There’s someone in there!” I sputtered out, tripping on the hem of the dress in the process. Teagan caught me as I nearly fell, shunting me back to Haynesworth as he perceived the danger. “Threatened me-“
Not hesitating, he drew his weapon. “Keep her back.”
If Ryan resented being ordered around, he didn’t let on as he shielded me; hands twitching toward his own weapon. I watched as Teagan headed around the corner, gun first.
All I could do was shiver, the sound of silence pervading over our rapid breathing. Blood crashed around in my ears, realizing that I’d been caught severely unaware. If the resistance was looking for my help, then they were likely planning on waging a war. One that I’d likely be a casualty of when they struck… if I didn’t ally myself with them. The question was who the Forge was, the other unknown mentioned party.
After a minute, Teagan called back from beyond our view, “All clear. Signal your security to sweep the premises. There’s a ceiling vent open, so they got in through the air system. Get her out of here!”
As I huffed out in relief that Teagan was safe, Ryan’s expression set into anger, ushering me from the premises before one more word could be uttered.
For now, I was secure. Nevertheless, for the future a new enemy had set its sights on me. The Lynx had made it clear I had a choice to make. One that could cost me my life if I didn’t comply.
On the other end of the spectrum, if I went along with any demands, I’d be murdered for sure. I didn’t doubt for a second that if I went against the hierarchy controlling my father, they’d take me out.
I now had an absolute bullseye painted on my forehead no matter what path I chose. With three opposing sides apparently out there, I was neatly cornered in between them.
“Don’t worry. We’ll keep you safe,” Ryan crooned to me as he helped me into the limo, mistaking my anxiety for the fact that I’d been cornered. He patted my hand as the car started. “Nothing to worry about at all…”
Oh, yes. Nothing at all.
I wanted to scream.
Copyright 2020 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel
Things are definitely starting to heat up in Dejado Atrás! Any predictions about Aiyla’s sudden visitor? Or perhaps why her health issues were hidden? And the proposal! You’ll have to wait ’till next week to find out!
Love and hugs to you all, Maggie Lynn
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